10 Productivity tips to make better use of your day
Want to get more out of your day? In our last article, which looked at how you can spend less time on emails, we referred to the so-called “Two Minute Rule”. This is just one of a number of such methods out there that aim to improve personal productivity, one or more of which you may already be using. With Summer here, and hopefully bringing a little more time to experiment, we thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at some of them, to see if they might help you achieve more in the time you have available. The important thing is flexibility, choosing what fits in with your own way of working, maybe combining or adapting some ideas, without being overly rigid.
1 The Two Minute Rule
First, a quick recap from our article How to reduce time spent on emails, the 2 minute rule is “if an action takes less than 2 minutes, it should be done at the moment it’s defined”. The rationale is that if something can be done in less time than it would take in total to organise it, add it to your to-do list and finally process it, then it’s much more efficient to do it there and then.
Provisos include being flexible with the 2 minutes, to only use it when you are in “processing mode” (see the full article), and, if you suddenly realise 2 minutes is not long enough, then stop, don’t upset your productivity.
For more information on the 2 Minute Rule, check out the video from its creator David Allen.
2 The Pomodoro Technique
Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, and this technique, named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, was first thought of by Francesco Cirillo over 30 years ago. The aim is to be productive, as focussed as possible, in fixed periods of time, normally 25 minutes, then to take a short rest, then start again. By reducing interruptions the idea is that both “focus” and “flow” are enhanced.
So how to set about using the technique:
• Choose the task to be tackled
• Set the timer, normally for 25 minutes
• After working on the task, take a 5 minute break
• If the task remains unfinished, or you have a new task, start the timer again
If a task is finished while the clock is still ticking, use the remaining time to review what you’ve done, to make improvements, learn from what you’ve done and, importantly, carry on doing this until the timer marks the end of the current “pomodoro”. If 25 minutes doesn’t fit in, if you prefer to keep working until a task is completed, flex the time to suit your way of working. Needless to say, it’s important to finish each task that you start, if you can. If you don’t, you’ll find the unfinished ones will start to accumulate in your head and drag down your productivity.
For more information on the Pomodoro Technique, check out Cirillo Consulting’s site. There are plenty of apps out there making it very easy to use the Pomodoro Technique, a good example being PowerPom for PC – simply a 25 minute timer with 5 minute breaks, and without any annoying in-app purchases.
3 The “One and Done” Rule
Not to be confused with the National Basketball Association’s rule on eligibility, this one is for mainly simple tasks. A bit like the 2 minute rule, it’s a very basic “do it now” instead of leaving it for later and adding it to a to-do list.
4 The 1-3-5 System
Still with the numbers theme, the 1-3-5 system is a way to handle to-do lists.
Do you ever manage to get through your to-do list? If you’re like most people, probably not, the reason being that most of us overestimate what can be done in the time available, failing to allocate sufficient time to getting things done.
How does the 1-3-5 system work? Essentially you have two to-do lists, or more accurately, one list from which you create a daily to-do list. The resulting list consists of 1 major task, 3 medium and 5 minor ones.
Begin by making sure you have a comprehensive to-do list at the start of each week. It will include some activities carried over from the previous week. Then rank the items on that list according to major, medium and minor. How you do that depends on your own preferences: it might be the time the task will take, the effort needed to complete it (some tasks might take a while but don’t need a great deal of thought, preparation or maybe research, for example), or how important it is to your goals or those of your team or organisation.
Each day aim to complete 1 major task, 3 medium tasks and 5 minor ones. The benefits in doing so are as follows:
• ticking off a number of minor tasks, those to-dos that might take up to 10 minutes each, will keep you motivated
• the medium tasks could be the fuel for the major tasks, and you will be rewarded with the feeling that comes with successfully completing a big challenge on a regular basis
• focussing on organising your to-do list on a regular basis will help you get better organised and ensure more is achieved on a daily basis
5 The “Touch it Once” Rule
For those who dabble a bit, put something down, dither a bit, then go back for a another go, this rule could help improve your ability to get things done.
The theory here is that, once you touch something, you take immediate action. That might be completing a simple task, or determining the next steps to getting it done. The objective is to stop your mind wandering, worrying about all those tasks that remain outstanding, which affects how productive you are with what you are currently doing.
Instead, if you have already decided next steps, or at best completed the task, you’ll find it won’t be there, nagging away, distracting you.
6 Learn to say “No”
Essential if you are one of those people who always has a stack of work outstanding, never seeming to get to the bottom of it. Now may be the time to look at whether you need to change your approach, however uncomfortable it makes you feel.
These days there is a lot of pressure to say “Yes” to everything when it comes to taking on work. However the smart response may be to change this mentality. Instead focus on your productivity when applied to your current workload, and take on new tasks only when you’re on top of the current ones.
Admittedly, this is a strategy that can be hard to implement, but always being at the mercy of others can really cause your overall productivity to fall. A simple “no, I am busy at the moment, but I’ll let you know if I have more time later” should start to send out the right signals. More of a challenge will be when those tasks come from a manager or supervisor – an approach in this situation could be to discuss your current list of things to do, then ask then for help in prioritising. Check out how they respond.
7 The Eisenhower Matrix
In our article “Inbox Zero – enjoy the journey”, we touched on what is known as “the Eisenhower Matrix”. This is a method of prioritising tasks, based around Eisenhower’s quote: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”.
How does it work?
• Those emails falling in Quadrant 1 should be actioned the same day and personally
• Those in Quadrant 2 again should be actioned personally but this time they will have a deadline, but it’s not immediate
• Quadrant 3 contains those emails that, whilst urgent, can either be delegated to someone else or deferred for now
• Emails that have neither importance nor urgency fall into Quadrant 4 and can possibly be deleted or, in the case of newsletters, offers etc, unsubscribed.
8 “Eat the Frog”
Created by Brian Tracey, this method is about completing your most important task at the start of the day. It comes from the Mark Twain quote “If the first thing you do in the morning is to eat the frog, then you can continue your day with the satisfaction of knowing that this is probably the worst thing that will happen to you all day”. In other words, eating the frog is the one thing you really wish you could avoid somehow, the task you least want to do.
Getting your highest priority task out of the way when you have the most energy (which of course won’t be at the same time of day for everyone) makes sense. Once done it will hopefully vitalise you for the rest.
Contrary to seeking satisfaction and getting motivated by completing a number of minor tasks – the opposite to “Eat the Frog” – the accomplishment here comes from knowing that achieving your more important objectives is that much closer, maybe you’ve contributed to moving a project closer to completion, and hopefully it will make all the other tasks that day seem easier. You get peace of mind knowing you’ve eaten that frog. If instead you had postponed the task, it will still be there, continuing to play on your mind, be a distraction, reducing your productivity.
How to apply the concept? First break your project down into a number of tasks, prioritise tasks making sure you list the frogs, then tackle one frog each day, every day.
If first thing in the morning is not the time you are your most productive, try to schedule a high priority task for the time that most suits you. Possibly just as important as “Eating the Frog” is determining what is your most productive time of day. Only then will you know when you’re at your most effective, when you’re best equipped to deal with the more important challenges. In order to help identify that optimal time, try dividing a day in to four segments: first thing in the morning, late morning, early afternoon and late afternoon. Allocate each a similar task then afterwards take some time to think about how effective you were when working on each.
9 Themed days
Whilst really not wanting to encroach on the “X habits of seriously rich people” genre, this does deserve a mention as it may also work for you. Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO, is said to use this method to organise what must undoubtedly be a heavy workload: themes for different days of the week.
Explaining how he managed to run both Square and Twitter at the same time, in a 2011 interview with Techonomy, he said that what worked for him was to theme his days. Mondays was for managing and running both companies; Tuesdays product; Wednesdays marketing, communications and growth; Thursdays developers and partnerships; Fridays company, culture and recruiting; Saturdays are where he takes a day off; and Sundays for reflections, feedback, strategy as well as planning for the coming week.
Not only, one assumes, does this regularity help with focus for an individual, but it must also be helpful to those around him or her, knowing that they have a week to work on those important points that came up in the most recent session.
Steve Jobs – only one more rich American to go now – was said to use a similarly consistent use of time – Mondays were for team meetings; Wednesdays for advertising and marketing; and most afternoons for design.
Even if you don’t happen to be the CEO of a large company, allocating chunks of time to specific themes might be a way to help you be more productive.
10 Batching similar tasks
The objective of “Task Batching” is to ensure that tasks are completed in the most efficient way, the source of this efficiency coming from the idea that some tasks are tackled in a similar way, allowing you to quickly get into the “flow”, improving your focus.
Mass production, possibly first conceived by Henry Ford, works on a similar principle: switching tasks uses up valuable time and assigning only one aspect of production to an individual, or group of individuals, had a dramatic effect on costs, productivity and profitability.
By tackling tasks that require a similar approach allows one to get into a rhythm which will reduce the amount of time spent on each. Continually shifting focus means interruptions, and recovering from each one takes a significant amount of time.
So how do you start the batching process? First look for similarities in the tasks that you undertake. Being exactly the same is neither necessary nor workable – use broad categories, such as making calls, replying to emails, or updating your accounts. Batching tasks is designed to prevent multi-tasking, constantly switching between different types of jobs. Whilst you might think multitasking is efficient, research has shown it reduces your productivity by up to 40%, the reason being that no one thing gets your full attention. So when you are batching it’s very important to tackle tasks that require a similar approach, the same frame of mind.
After that, block out periods in your timetable for each category. There is also a motivational aspect to this technique – when you do a wide range of things during a day, at the end of that day it’s often difficult to remember what you actually did, then you feel demotivated. On the contrary, if you know you spent the afternoon successfully clearing a number of emails, then you will hopefully be fired up, or at least less fatigued, when comes the time to start on the next batch. In a similar way, keeping a “done” list, in addition to a “to-do” list can give your motivation a boost, improve your enthusiasm, ready for when it comes to tackling the next task.
You might want to combine this method with others, such as the Pomodoro Technique mentioned above, combining focused time as well as time for rest. As always, the important thing is to find a way of working that best suits your own way of working.
11 (A bonus tip) Fresh air and natural light
Finally, whilst not exactly a productivity tool as such, having access to fresh air and natural light will make a significant difference to your productivity. Try sitting next to an open window – you will find you feel more awake during the day and sleep better at night.
A few words about CompassAir
Creating solutions for the global maritime sector, CompassAir develops state of the art messaging and business application software designed to maximise ROI. Our software is used across the sector, including by Sale and Purchase brokers (S&P/SnP), Chartering brokers, Owners, Managers and Operators.
Through its shipping and shipbroking clients, ranging from recognised World leaders through to the smallest, most dynamic independent companies, CompassAir has a significant presence in the major maritime centres throughout Europe, the US and Asia.
Our flagship solution is designed to simplify collaboration for teams within and across continents, allowing access to group mailboxes at astounding speed using tools that remove the stress from handling thousands of emails a day. It can be cloud based or on premise. To find out more contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are new to shipping, or just want to find out more about this exciting and challenging sector, the CompassAir Shipping Guide might prove to be an interesting read.
Contact us for more information or a short demonstration on how CompassAir can benefit your business, and find out how we can help your teams improve collaboration and increase productivity.